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Allegheny Cemetery: Discovering a graveyard of stories with BikeFest

Written by Mila Sanina on .

I am convinced that the best way to explore the Allegheny Cemetery is on your bike. Of course, you need a guide. Even better, a few guides -- people who can make the graveyard stories come alive, who can enlighten and entertain you while you exercise. 

 
I am not suggesting that graveyards are the most entertaining places, but they do hide a lot of stories that may make you smile. And I am not arguing that cemeteries are the best places to exercise; still, covering the 300-acre cemetery on foot is virtually impossible and doing so by car is … well, bad for Pittsburgh and, in fact, for the entire planet -- not that the deceased particularly care about carbon emissions.
 
That's why it was so brilliant of BikeFest organizers to offer a free two-hour cycling tour Sunday morning of the Allegheny Cemetery as part of this year's celebration of all-things-bicycling in Pittsburgh. And they didn't even need to ask the Allegheny Cemetery officials for special permission; a ban on riding a bike through the cemetery has been lifted recently. And the dead do not seem to mind.
 

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I don't know exactly how many times I've passed the Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. It always looked so massive and … uninviting from the distance.  I remember wondering, "Does anyone even come here?" I never considered it to be a place to learn about Pittsburgh's history. That's what museums and archives are for, right?
 
Well, I was wrong. And I am not sure I would have known to what extent had I not joined a group of bicyclists for the BikeFest tour. Don't get me wrong: I am not afraid of ghosts. I just figured it would be better to be part of the group than being alone with gravestones … plus the tour's tease sounded interesting:

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"The Lawrenceville Historical Society will be leading a bike tour of Allegheny Cemetery, one of only 11 historic cemeteries ... in the United States. At points of interest throughout the cemetery. docents will be providing the stories of the cemetery's most famous residents. Come and hear about Gen. Alexander Hays, Stephen Foster, the notorious Henry Thaw, Galbraith Perry Rodgers, Josh Gibson,  Lillian Russell and others."

 

So off we went. A leader of the tour named Dan Simkins greeted the bicyclists near the gate built by John Chislett, one of the city's most prominent architects. The turnout was good, with approximately 40 helmet-wearing enthusiasts ready to ride.
 
For starters, Dan shared a brief history of the Allegheny Cemetery. It was built in 1844 on land purchased for $50,000 by George A. Bayard. Given the smaller size of Pittsburgh in those days, it would be able to provide a resting place for all of the city's residents.
 
These days, surely Allegheny Cemetery must be one of the places where Pittsburghers would like to rest in peace when their earthly journeys are over (but be advised that building a personal mausoleum would cost you a $2 million donation).
 
As for the ride, it will be a bit hilly, Dan warned. And up we rolled.
 
Water-stained and bulging. White and gray. Granite and steel. Short and high. Barely visible and inappropriately ostentatious. The Allegheny Cemetery has them, gravestones of a variety of ages and sizes. Some of the oldest graves belong to solders from the French and Indian War. I found out later that an estimated more than 125,000 dead rest there.  

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As the tease for the ride promised, we visited the grave of Gen. Hays, and our next guide (we met and heard from six guides along the way) told us about his military accomplishments during the Civil War, his drinking habits and how Ulysses S. Grant who, after he became president, visited the grave of Gen. Hays at the Allegheny Cemetery and wept over it.

We then visited the Fosters: the first was William Barclay Foster, a founder of Lawrenceville. By his side stood the gravestone of internationally famous Stephen Foster, sometimes called "the Father of American Music." As we were learning about the agonies and ecstasies of the author of "Oh! Susanna," three people approached his gravestone and performed a tombstone rubbing. 

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We visited the grave of the notorious murderer Henry Thaw who in June 1906 committed the first "crime of the century" by killing architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden. While standing near his tombstone, we heard the auspicious Icarus-like story of Galbraith Perry Rodgers, who piloted the first transcontinental airplane  flight across the U.S. We saw the memorial dedicated to 78 civilians who died in the Allegheny Arsenal Explosion in 1862, Pittsburgh's worst day during the Civil War.
 
We walked our bikes along the "Millionaires Row," so called because of the mind-boggling cost of the mausoleums there. And our tour guide shared priceless stories about people laid to rest in these pricey structures: Emil White, for example, a financial giant of his time. White was caught bribing city officials while trying to keep Pittsburgh taxpayers' money in his bank. White seems to have received pharaoh-like treatment in his Egyptian mausoleum.
 
Nearby stands an exquisite mausoleum of "The American Beauty" -- Lillian Russell Moore, the famous actress who in one appearance on the stage in man's clothes and with a cigar scandalized the audience, yet her talents and beauty earned her accolades and fame. "The world is better for her having lived," the inscription says. Her fourth husband, Pittsburgh newspaper publisher Alexander Pollock Moore, loved Lillian so much that after her death every year he would put a rose on the door of her mausoleum. The tour guide said he was giving a cemetery tour on Halloween a few years ago and was telling the visitors about Mr. Moore's rose tradition. When they approached Lillian's mausoleum, they found a rose was there. Boo!  
 
And then we saw Jesus. 
 
Or at least a statue of Jesus, said to be the second tallest 'bronze' statue of Christ in the world after the one in Brazil, that's according to our guide. 

 

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It's not possible to bike to Josh Gibson's gravesite. There is no pavement but a gravel-covered path that leads to it, then you need to hike up to pay tribute to the most legendary black baseball player in history. Gibson has no gravestone, but a barely noticeable plaque on a steep grassy hill. Segregation seems very much alive, even with reference to the dead. Our guide pointed out that white people called Josh Gibson "the black Babe Ruth," but the black people would refer to Babe Ruth as "the white Josh Gibson." Josh Gibson's remarkable story was told in part by the PG's Steve Mellon, who wrote last week about Gibson in "The Digs" after we found a rare photo of the great player in our archives.

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There are more stories from the Allegheny Cemetery to tell and even more to discover. I really wish we would have stopped by the grave of lawyer and founder of the Mellon Bank, Thomas Alexander Mellon, and heard the story of abolitionist, journalist and women's rights advocate Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm.

There are so many narratives buried here, stories of those who left their footprints on Pittsburgh and on the historical course of the country. They offer lessons, hope, wisdom, comfort and even inspiration for those who are alive. 

BikeFest will run until August 25, if you would like to learn more about the BikeFest tours around the city, visit http://bikepgh.org/campaigns/bikefest/

 

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